I am a non-Chinese speaker looking into wú wéi(無爲) as part of my own philosophical searchings. As part of stripping away my own English-centric understanding, I'm trying to look at the words as more than just "not doing," which is a typical English translation. That means finding decent references on the meanings of the words in the context of the Chinese mindset. That takes far more words than a mere phrase or sentence.

I can find plenty of documents which go on and on about the subtleties of 無 when it is used in philosophical discourse, but I can't seem to find anything which discusses the meaning of 爲 any deeper than Wikitionary is willing to give me. Plenty of sites will provide meanings for 無爲 together, but the point of the exercise is to glean more information from understanding them apart.

Can anyone provide a reasonable reference which gives 爲 a more in-depth treatment which might provide more insight than a simple English translation to "doing?"

  • Not sure if it's helpful, but take a look at online dictionary of . Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 8:57
  • there're many remarks, explanations of "無爲" in literatures of yore; but, if you can not read literary chinese, in traditional script; well, it's "cxxxxman's chance" you can get deeper meanings. imo, "no doing" is an acceptable, elementary translation. Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 9:15
  • @水巷孑蠻 Agreed on what my chances are, but I seek it none the less. I do believe the concept behind 無爲 is more universal, something that shows up in all of humanity. Whether or not it is effective to seek it via characters in what is to me a foreign language is yet to be seen. After all, all spoken languages were foreign to us once, when we were very young.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 15:26
  • @CortAmmon In case you're still unsure, "doing" is the earliest common meaning from which all other meanings have arose. It did indeed depict a hand and an elephant, where the hand was leading the elephant in assisting in doing jobs (the "feeding" explanation given by the other answer and the website is incorrect, there is no evidence of the character 爲 ever being used as a meaning to do with feeding). All other definitions of 爲 are derivatives, so if you're looking for a buddhist/taoist sense then young99 has the best answer.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 12:33

3 Answers 3


There are many meanings for 為.

The question is to ask the deeper meaning of 為 in 無為.

So,we should understand the meaning of 無為 first.

The 無為 is mostly used in Taoism or Buddhism.

The following content is based on the Buddhist point of view.

The 無為 in the Dharma means 無因緣的造作.

It means not doing something for any reason, condition or circumstance.

Therefore, 為 refers to 造作, in particular 有因緣的造作.

That is to do something for some cause, condition or dependence.

This 為 shows the phenomenon of creating, staying, changing and extinguishing.

This means that it occurs when the karma is sufficient, then it maintains for a period of time, it starts to change when the karma begins to diminish, and it perishes when the karma is completely gone.

In short, this 為 is impermanent.

For example, the Great Wall.

For the sake of defense (因), a lot of people, materials and tools were gathered (緣), and then it's built. (生)

This is the 為.

It still exists. (住)

However, due to various reasons, it has been damaged. (異)

Excuse me: Will it still exist 100 million years later? A trillion years later? (滅)

  • Thank you for taking the time to approach this from my end goal of understanding 無為, rather than just the narrow question I asked about 為. This is very helpful indeed!
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 15:19

IMHO: 爲 - is a hand holding elephants trunk. It meant "to do heavy work". In Asia elephants are commonly used to do heavy lifting and building in remote areas.

Some paleoglythers (http://hanziyuan.net/) say that:

Modern invention: new cursive 为為爲

Decomposition: Pictograph from 爲 of a hand-zhua 爪爫爫 zhuǎ (feeding 喂 wei) an elephant 象 xiàng.

Original meaning: Meaning (orig) to feed an elephant BFS meaning to do.

Example in use: 為何 wèi hé (why)

Modern meanings: do, handle, govern, act; be

  • 1
    So the philosophical meaning should be .... "Don't feed the elephant!" :)
    – coobit
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 8:16
  • I had seen the decomposition into hand and elephant before, but I had not been able to find an explanation for why those symbols might have been chosen. That cultural background is very helpful!
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 15:22
  • @CortAmmon if you found the answer helpful please upvote it.
    – Mou某
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 8:16
  • @user3306356 I will be. I've just been waiting to see if the community wanted to add more answers and/or decide their favorite before putting my votes in place.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 16:30
  • @CortAmmon Yeah, I get it, but you can save that for your checkmark!
    – Mou某
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 16:58

I think your problem in understanding the meaning of "無為" is your misinterpretation of the meaning of "無". "不” means "no" or "to be not". "無" means "(there) to be not". If you have taken French, it is the difference between "Ce n'est pas" and "Il n'y a pas". You will use "無" in the case of "Il n'y a pas" (There is not/no; There isn't any). Translating "為" as "doing" is fine, because "為" in English would require a noun coming after "無", and therefore "為" should be translated as "doing" (gerund of "to do"). A transliteration of "無為" should be "(There is) no doing".

Although to an English speaker the difference between "no/not" might seem almost nonexistent, because in English these are confounded and mixed up in usage, especially in American English. The semantic difference between "There is" and "It is" is material to many agglutinating languages, such as Romance languages, Slavic languages, Korean, Japanese, etc. If you look at these two from an English speaker's perspective, the difference is only between "There" and "It", while in the other languages mentioned prior, two different verbs are used. In Classical Chinese, this is the difference between “不” and "無".

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